By Anna Thomas | Science Editor
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are well and truly underway, but climate change has cast aspersions on the future of the Games.
Since its conception in 1926, there have been 24 Winter Olympic Games held by 21 different cities. However, research has emerged from the US indicating that, given the trajectory of climate change, only one of these previous hosts will be able to reliably hold the Games by the end of the century.
The conditions required for the Winter Olympics are highly specific and extremes in temperature, precipitation or snow coverage could all compromise the safety of the athletes. Notably, rising temperatures can adversely impact the snow quality so courses become slushy and thus athletes struggle to slow their run or land safely.
Moreover, the fluctuations in temperature can alter the composition of snow over the course of the day meaning different competitors in the same category will have very different experiences of the course. Retired Olympian Simi Hamilton, reported that at previous Games, the snow could be “rock hard and fast in the morning, and then gradually it just became so slow throughout the day”. He went on to explain how these variable conditions could oftentimes make races unfair as athletes would produce different times based on conditions rather than skill.
Since the 1980s, host cities have relied on fake snow to supplement natural snow fall. Reliance on artificial snow has risen since its debut in Lake Placid but the Beijing Games are the first to rely 100% on artificial snow. It has been estimated that in order to produce the correct conditions for the Games, Beijing’s snow machines will cost them upward of $60 million to run and will consume around 49 million gallons of water.
Whilst the production of artificial snow works as a short-term remedy for reduced reliability in snow conditions, it is far from a perfect solution. The catastrophic environmental implications of this much water consumption makes its practice morally questionable. Moreover, even man-made snow requires suitably low temperatures to stay frozen and these conditions are under threat as climate change advances.
Although at first glance the outlook appears bleak, hope is not lost entirely. Should countries control their emissions within the parameters set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, then there would be eight reliable hosts by the turn of the century instead of one. Currently, we are at a turning point, not only for the future of the Winter Olympics, but for our planet as a whole and it is up to us to determine what happens next.Anna Thomas Science and Technology